Lot 410
  • 410

Alchemical Manuscript.

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Sapientia Veterum
with a Latin introductory treatise, including an address to the reader and discussions of the significance of sulphur, three of the elements ("De Elemento Terrae", "De Elemento Aquae", and "De Elemento Aeris") and the forms and combinations of the elements, 12 pages, in a single early seventeenth-century hand, followed by an English translation of the address to the reader ("The Wisdom of the Antients. | To The Reader") added later in the hand of General Charles Rainsford, 6 pages, the bulk of the manuscript comprising 67 finely-executed ink and watercolour illustrations symbolic of alchemical processes culminating in the creation of the "red stone" or the "philosophers' stone", the first illustration with a general title ("Angelorum opus, Authore Hermete phylosopho perito") and each subsequent illustration captioned in Latin or English (e.g. "Mercurius", "Preparation", "Quinta Essentia", and finally "Fixation") and numbered, each image depicted within a circle or a flask, certain of the illustrations with additional notes on elements and associating the alchemical processes with an ascent up the angelic hierarchy (e.g. number 6 "Gabriel", number 28 "Potestates", and number 66 "Thrones"), with a note on the manuscript's provenance and significance on the front free endpapers in Rainsford's hand ("valued by [William] Cooper at 15-0-0 Cooper the Bookseller at the Pellican Little Britain 1678 ... I believe these MSS to have been Eirenius Philalethes own writings”), altogether 85 pages, plus blanks, folio (320 x 200mm., watermark of the arms of Schieland [see Heawood no. 481]), early seventeenth century, vellum endpapers, nineteenth-century red morocco gilt with the centrepiece Northumberland armorial stamp, gilt edges, some light soiling, spine sunned, some scuffing especially at joints


"Bought of Heard in Piccadilly with 2 more Cost £5"; General Charles Rainsford (1728-1809); Hugh, Second Duke of Northumberland (1742-1817); thence by descent

Catalogue Note

An early copy of an important and enigmatic alchemical work. Sapientia Veterum (Of the Wisdom of the Ancients), also known as Coronatio Naturae (The Crowning of Nature), is a guide to the lengthy set of processes - distillation, calcination, sublimation, putrefaction, conjugation, separation, etc. - that would lead to the production of the legendary "red stone", through a series of 67 extraordinary symbolic illustrations. These complex and fascinating images begin with a representation of chaos and end, ultimately, with the figure of nature bearing a crown. A sun and crescent moon are the central images of the first phase of the process, which culminates in the leo viridis (green lion), and are then followed by a long sequence of images that include a dove ending in a Quinta Essentia from which emerges the serpent, that in turn becomes an ouroboros, then a dragon. As with many alchemical works, the sequence of images has multiple meanings, being both an encoded set of practical instructions and also a representation of spiritual progression.

The origin of this work is unknown but there are at least 40 surviving manuscript copies, ranging in date from the late 16th to the 18th century, including two copies that belonged to the Elizabethan alchemist Simon Forman (Bodleian Library, Ashmole MSS 1433 and 1490). Many of the surviving manuscripts have an accompanying text, but Forman, for example, noted in one of his copies that he believed the images predated any associated text. The current manuscript's introductory "To the Reader" begins with an apology for his obscurity ("...Not being permitted Most benevolent Reader to write in a clearer Manner than Other Antient Philosophers have done; probably you will not be satisfied with what I have written…") but goes on to insist that observation of nature is the key to understanding alchemical mysteries: “The Most High God … has placed nothing difficult in Nature: if therefore you will imitate Nature, let me persuade You, that you consider it most simply & you will find Every thing Good in it”.

The manuscript was owned in the late-eighteenth century by General Charles Rainsford (see lot ***), who added his own translation of the "To the Reader" (quoted above) on blank pages after the introduction and also added a curious provenance note. As well as noting the immediate source of the manuscript, he notes that it had been known to William Cooper (1639-89), the man responsible for the first book auctions in England and a prominent writer on alchemical subjects. Cooper had been a leading advocate of the prolific alchemical writer (and early Harvard graduate) George Starkey (1628-65), alias Eirenaeus Philalethes, whose work was widely admired by (among others) the early members of the Royal Society, and consequently Rainsford believed this manuscript to be in the hand of Starkey himself. This speculation is incorrect: both paper and hand strongly suggest that this manuscript dates from the first years of the seventeenth century, before Starkey was active.